Department of Correspondence

Posted: Apr 25, 2008 12:01 AM
Department of Correspondence

Dear Music Critic,

It was wholly a pleasure to be educated about modern, 20th century music by someone who's clearly an admirer of Anton Webern and the rest of the European avant-garde who followed Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone scale right over the cliff.

A mere listener rather than musician and scholar, I'll have to take your word for it that Webern's music, as was once said of Wagner's, is a lot better than it sounds.

To simple me, as I noted in the column to which you took such strong exception, Webern's "Five Pieces," which I got to endure at a recent concert, struck me as a cross between a marble skidding across a highly polished wooden floor and a tray of wineglasses being knocked over, although not as melodic.

When a tray of glasses in the rear of the hall actually did collapse at the onset of the performance, I thought it was the first movement.

When it comes to music like Webern's, I tend to share the reaction of Philip Glass, the minimalist composer, who described it as "this crazy, creepy music." Benjamin Britten it isn't, or even Copland.

Doubting my credentials as a music critic - which is easy enough, since I have none - you wonder what a columnist like me is doing writing about music anyway.

But music isn't a world apart, with no connection to the society in which it is composed. It may reflect that world's political and social trends all too accurately - some of them quite suicidal. Art often mirrors its times, as, alas, Webern's latter music did.

A composer's politics, you argue, should have nothing to do with how we judge his music. Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, takes a different tack in his new history of modern music, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century." To quote his verdict:

"The period from the mid-30s onward marked the most warped and tragic phase in 20th-Century music: the total politicization of the art by totalitarian means. Not only did composers fail to rise up en masse against totalitarianism, but many actively welcomed it."

You can hear Anton Webern's devotion to the newest thing in his words of praise for the German fuehrer: "Yes, a new state it is, one that has never existed before!! It is something new! Created by this unique man!!!"

But the composer's deranged enthusiasm for the New Order was not confined to words. You can hear it in his music. It's the equivalent of the italicized phrases and chattering, disjointed exclamation points in his prose.

Enthusiasm is as dangerous in the arts as it is in politics. Especially when, unmoored from the past, it sails off under the delusion it's creating something NEW! In Webern's case, the New Order he celebrated turned out be the old, barbaric disorder only delivered with modern efficiency.

To quote Alex Ross, "The cultish fanaticism of modern art turns out to be not unrelated to the politics of fascism; both attempt to remake the world in utopian terms." And utopias have a way of becoming dystopias, just as the perfectly logical has a way of becoming the wholly unreasonable, and the entirely new the entirely old. Webern's music led only to a dead end. In his case, what began as brave new music ended in the sound of shattered crockery.

It's enough to make a fella sing the blues.


Inky Wretch

Dear Mad as Hell,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your e-mail raising Cain with Congress, but not because your sentiments are particularly novel. There has been dissatisfaction with Congress ever since there's been a Congress. It's something of an American tradition, and at times an eloquent one.

To quote one of Mark Twain's observations on that august body: "Suppose you were an idiot. Suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

Will Rogers got in on the act, too. ("The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets.")

So you're not alone in your sentiments, valued correspondent. You've got historical precedent on your side. And the public opinion polls, too, for what they're worth. Congress' approval rating is now said to be even lower than the president's, and that's low indeed.

Last time I looked, Bush 43 was scoring in the low 30s while the best Congress could do was the high teens. If the president's popularity is approaching rock bottom, Congress' is subterranean. When it comes to the subject of our lawmakers, you're scarcely alone.

But your e-mail marked the first time I've heard the suggestion that "all of the members of Congress need to be impeached." It's an interesting idea, but I doubt we'll see it implemented any time soon, since I guess Congress would have to do the impeaching. And I doubt it would impeach, let alone convict, itself. Although the spectacle would be engaging.

Your suggestion reminds me that, whatever the faults of our legislative branch, We the People can come up with some pretty strange ideas, too. And just when I think I've heard it all.

Thanks, I guess,

Inky Wretch

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